The days of the Dallas Cowboys drafting a running back in the first round have seemingly ended. The last back to be taken at the top of their own draft was Ezekiel Elliott, who was selected fourth overall in 2016.
Elliott’s impact on the franchise was immediate and everlasting. He burst onto the scene with over 1,600 yards rushing, 15 touchdowns, and a first-team All-Pro nomination. After eclipsing over 1,000 yards in two of the next three seasons, Elliott’s production started to decline in 2020.
Since Mike McCarthy took over as head coach, Elliott crossed 1,000 yards just once in 2021 with 1,002. The six-year, $90 million contract extension in 2019 started to outweigh the production on the field, which is why the front office parted ways with the former face of the franchise in the 2023 offseason.
Despite being an outstanding teammate and being beloved by fans, Elliott’s price tag got too heavy. A big reason why the front office was confident in letting their star running back go was because Tony Pollard was in a position to take over the lead role on the franchise tag.
Even after his ankle injury, the Cowboys were confident Pollard could return to his explosive self and be the catalyst to McCarthy’s run-heavy approach. Unfortunately, Pollard never returned to the player he once was, averaging just four yards a carry—the lowest of his career.
Michael Gehlken of the Dallas Morning News says the combined salary of the running backs currently on the roster (Deuce Vaughn, Malik Davis, Snoop Connor, and Hunter Leupke) will cost significantly less in 2024 than what Elliott's cap hit is for not being on the team.
At $6.04 million, Elliott stands to count more against the Cowboys’ 2024 cap while not on the roster than any running back who actually occupies it. That final burden aside, the franchise has achieved financial freedom.
All running backs under contract count less than $1 million toward the salary cap. Their salaries, worth the league minimum, are not guaranteed. Hypothetically, should any of the four fail to make the 53-man roster out of camp, the team can part with negligible cap penalty.
This clearing begs for a more cost-conservative approach to the position, reliant on selecting at least one running back in the April draft. A new age is here, one in which the Cowboys are not simultaneously throwing top dollar at their quarterback and running back positions.
The Cowboys must soon decide whether to re-sign Pollard and Rico Dowdle. Both are scheduled to become free agents March 13. While Dallas could be amenable for a reunion at the right price, this is clearly a new day for the future at the running back position, one in which, at least for the next few years, high-priced contracts are reserved for other positions on the roster.
As Gehlken points out, both Pollard and Rico Dowdle are scheduled to be free agents in March. They could welcome either or both players back, but it all depends on the price. Either Dowdle or Pollard could compete for the starting role if they return. The Cowboys drafted Vaughn in the sixth round last year but could be inclined to draft one of the top backs in the second or third round this year if someone falls to them.
Regardless of which direction Dallas takes, they will likely follow the trend of other teams in the league who aim to maximize value by spending less money on running backs. This is especially true since the team may want to focus on extending their All-Pro players in premium positions such as Dak Prescott, CeeDee Lamb, and Micah Parsons.